When I was growing up there were two zombie variants. You had your Dungeons & Dragons zombies, and you had your Night of the Living Dead zombies. While I was too young to see that classic movie when it first came out, years later I watched it all alone, very late at night, on the Chanel 9 Creature Feature, which was sponsored by an aluminum siding company. No human being was ever more grateful for an aluminum siding sales pitch than yours truly that night.
At about the same time I was also binge-playing D&D, and in both contexts I still remember debating the moral and ethical issues surrounding the slaughter of zombies. It might seem that the only justification needed for hacking a zombie to pieces or shooting one in the face is the fact that they are intent on eating healthy non-zombie people alive, which is super creepy. But tigers and lions also display that same proclivity at times, yet except for a few low-brow, atavistic big-game hunters still wandering the world in search of their genitals humanity has generally moved away from the idea that every potential existential threat deserves to be turned into wall art or a throw rug. And besides — back in the day zombies moved so slowly you could always run away from them unless you were a total idiot, like, unfortunately, most of the characters in Night of the Living Dead.
If the mere threat of zombies wasn’t enough for me to justify their execution, then, there was the fact that zombies represented a desecration of the dead. Rather than allowing the deceased to rest in peace while politely decaying out of sight, zombification forced the dearly departed to get up and wander around in search of bloody meat, regardless of any physical injury or decomposition they may have previously suffered. Not only was this a cultural abomination, but it was super gross, and on that basis alone suggested a wide range of acceptable motives for zombie killing, from godly mercy to wholesome tidiness.
In the end, as young men often do, I settled on cheap contextual heroism as my ethical justification for hacking zombies to pieces or watching them get their brains blown all over the landscape, but even then, in the primal pre-narrative recesses of my mind, I knew I was getting away with something. I was killing without killing. Taking life without taking life. Murdering without murdering.
Flash forward to today and we are a nation awash in zombie deaths. Gone are the slow-moving, shambling, black-and-white zombies or yore, and in their place are speed-walking, agile, full-color zombies capable of appearing anywhere at any time. Gone, too, are the old implements of dispatch, such as swords and shotguns, which have been updated to high-speed propellers, fifty-caliber sniper rifles, and timber harvesters.
In the never-ending quest to one-up each previous zombie incarnation, zombies are now primarily deployed in fiction of all kinds as a means of demonstrating greater degrees of difficulty and sophistication in the shredding of an animated human carcass. The irony in this is that human beings are now engaged in exactly the kind of drenched-in-blood orgiastic barbarism that used to be a signature of evil inhuman hordes like, say, zombies. Which is to say that at some point in the past decade or so we seem to have happily bounded over a philosophical line that we used to be defending.
The problem with zombies today is the same problem I wrestled with back in ye olde childhood of yore. Killing zombies seems like a good and right and moral thing to do. Which would be fine if zombies were real, but they’re not real. They’re pretend, and yet we can’t prop them up fast enough so we can kill them over and over and over in a thousand different ways. And lately I’m wondering if maybe our obsession with killing zombies isn’t saying more about our obsession with killing than it is about the ickiness of the fictional zombies we’re dispatching on an industrial scale.
It’s always handy to have a bad guy that deserves whatever depravity we feel justified in perpetrating as a means of differentiating ourselves from evil in a narrative context. For close to sixty years now Nazis have been fulfilling this role to rave reviews, while providing indisputable evidence that all of our heroes from Indiana Jones to the X-Men to Captain America are good and right and true simply by virtue of their antagonism toward Nazis. Yet I think there’s also some general agreement these days that however awful the Nazis were, at least from a historical perspective, they weren’t an entirely different race of undead. Which means confronting Nazis involves confronting ourselves on some level, if we’re inclined to worry about such things, and who wants that when you’re trying to enjoy exploding heads?
From the point of view of justifying and excusing all manner of narrative violence, you really can’t do better than the zombie, unless of course you have Nazi zombies — but those are still zombies. Not only do zombies always need killing, but because they’re fictional creations there’s no zombie union or federation of former zombies or wilderness compound teeming with bitter, angry, heavily-armed and paranoid zombie adherents that may decide to lash out at whatever serial-killer-like behavior your narrative heroes engage in while trying to rid the world of zombies so human beings can once again wage war against each other in peace. Or go shopping.
The zombie is in fact such a perfect foil for our own blood lust that it literally makes no rational sense to point out that what we are currently engaged in as a culture would be nothing less than zombie genocide if zombies actually existed. And even if they did exist I’m pretty sure every non-zombie would agree they should all be killed, because they’re icky. Predictably, this kind of narrative expectation has led to a few twists, such as the movie Fido, which ultimately did nothing to abate the crimson wave of zombie-killing that is currently washing across the storytelling landscape.
Because there’s nothing better than gore that makes us laugh, Zombies have even proven unbeatable in slapstick comedy that actually leaves a mark, if not an oozing gash. Zombies are our crash-test dummies, our physical foils, our comic relief and our evil incarnate all rolled into one, and as a result zombie factories all over the world are straining to keep up with demand. But it’s all good because nobody’s getting hurt. There are no zombie grandmothers worrying that their zombie grandchildren will be picked on at school or teased into suicide by online bullies.
Yet I can’t help but feel that this clever distillation of antagonism into a universally acceptable excuse for over-the-top expressions of mayhem and malice against human bodies is, in some way, eroding the part of our brains that should be uncomfortable watching the human form be reduced to pulp and ooze. Because as unreal as it all may be, I’m not sure there’s a big difference between what the eyeball witnesses and the brain experiences when a line of zombies are mowed down on camera and a line of human beings are executed on camera. Our minds are supposed to know the difference, of course, but as with anything else I think it’s possible to bore the mind with repetition, including the repetition of injuries to human bodies, fictional or otherwise.
Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, or maybe I’m a sucker for the underdog, or maybe I’m undead and don’t know it, but I don’t like cruelty. Which is why, a few years ago, I stopped watching shows with zombies in them. Somewhere along the line the hyper-violence in stories about zombies got too damn enjoyable for all involved, and I think that’s a cultural warning sign. When you’re convinced that every member of a particular group deserves to die you’re on a dangerous slippery slope.
So put me down as rooting for the zombies. As long as they don’t try to move into my neighborhood.
— Mark Barrett